Forget the Mommy Wars. Yes, moms still—and will—continue to battle over which parenting styles produced the happier, smarter, better-adjusted tots.
But that has apparently distracted from the larger war, the undercurrent of tensions and judgment between those who have children and those who do not. Breeding is the ultimate line in the sand.
“Before I had kids, I had no ambition. None,” Heather Havrilesky writes in her latest piece for New York.
She describes how her 20s and 30s sans children were spent “obsessing over trivial problems, and engaging in aimless tasks that added up to nothing.”
What saved her from this abyss of narcissism and nonsense: children.
Havrilesky trots out a variation of what young women have been told since widely accessible birth control has made motherhood a choice: No, you don't need to have kids, but they will make you a more complete, fulfilled person and drag your immature butt into adulthood.
I don’t doubt the validity of Havrilesky’s motherhood experience, and I am a massive fan of her work. I read her advice column “Dear Polly” close to religiously, and I am struck by how straightforward and firm yet non-judgmental her words are.
That’s why this recent column appears all the more tone-deaf and condescending in 2015.
More than a decade ago, the Sex and the City episode, “A Woman’s Right to Shoes,” brilliantly demonstrated how this motherhood superiority manifested in a progressive, socially liberal, feminist-minded woman.
In the episode, Carrie Bradshaw’s Manolo Blahniks are stolen after she is forced to leave them by the door of a baby shower because the super-cool, pot-smoking parents who lie in a downtown loft are also really worried about their kids contracting germs from the soles of people’s shoes.
While the mother, Kyra Bronson (played with perfect, beatific obliviousness by Tatum O’Neal), initially offers to pay for Carrie’s stolen Manolos, she blanches when she hears the $485 price tag.
“I have a real life,” she tells Carrie. “No offense, Carrie, but I really don't think we should have to pay for your extravagant lifestyle. I mean, it was your choice to buy shoes that expensive.”
To Havrilesky’s credit, she includes a one-sentence thumbs-up of approval to people who may not choose the baby route. “Obviously, if you don't want kids, having them won't make you happier,” she says.
But that’s one line in an essay that’s all about the benefits of having children, and specifically how it makes you a more mature, productive, valuable adult.
Havrilesky outlines how having her children forced her to focus, budget her time, and prioritize.
She makes it abundantly clear that in contrast to the stereotype that parents, especially moms, are the office equivalent of harried drone bees who can neither make money nor hold a conversation about anything other than the Wiggles, having children can exert a positive influence, both professionally and socially.
After her first baby, Havrilesky learned to stop hating and complaining about every party she went to: “People seemed more interesting because I didn't get to be around grown adults as often as I wanted to.”
Even more impressively, after her second child Havrilesky published a memoir--an achievement most writers only fantasize about or, more accurately, bitterly covet.
“When the leisure hours you used to spend doing stupid, unrewarding crap are eliminated, that leaves only about three seconds to do stuff you truly love,” Havrilesky writes. “And then something strange happens. You TRULY SAVOR those three seconds of free time, maybe for the first time ever.”
“Kids force you to decide what's worth your time and what isn't. Kids force you to focus on the things you love (yes, like your kids! But other things, too!), and to invest in those things with all of your heart,” writes Havrilesky.
In short, kids are what teach you to be responsible, well-balanced, and highly competent. Hooray!
However, she never quite acknowledges that there are lots of ways to develop these critical skills for being a valuable employee and an all-around thoughtful person.
The implication is that having children is some essential key to leading a truly mature life as a functioning adult—and one cannot achieve this ultimate state without progeny.
Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei railed against this pervasive belief during an interview with Manhattan Magazine in 2009. “I don’t know why women need to have children to be seen as complete human beings.”
At age 50 and nearly 30 years on the screen, Tomei’s been pestered with the “kid question” a whole lot, I would venture.
Havrilesky’s goal might be to push against the argument that people, especially women, who have children become less productive in the office and less valuable to their employers because they are (too) occupied caring for their families.
But this stereotype is already being rectified through the best way possible: hard research.
Last year, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis released the results of a 30-year study showing women with children were more productive in the workplace than those who had none.
Media outlets happily jumped on the study to cheer-lead working mothers.
One could almost sense the smugness in the opener of the Washington Post article on it: “A word of encouragement for my working moms: You are actually more productive than your childless peers.”
Take that, non-breeders.
No doubt, we have a long way to go in improving work-life balance for parents: increases in maternity and paternity leave, establishing flexible work hours, and debating whether or not employers should cover egg freezing are all important.
To add insult to injury, it is often forgotten is that this improvement is most critical when it comes to low-income families where parents tend to work in less tony and supportive blue-collar industries and holding a job while raising kids is often not a choice, but a necessity.
But we are kidding ourselves if we can’t admit things aren’t getting better. We are moving away from the perception that parents, especially mothers, are a drain on the office and not as capable or valuable as their childless colleagues.
Yet, there is still this championing of motherhood and working moms as if their “lifestyle” choice is under attack. In reality, it is as, if not more, glorified that it’s ever been. And with it comes attendant pressure on the childless and child-free—a sense of failure that they haven’t got both career and family; the sense that something is missing without the latter.
The same day Havrilesky’s article was published, the Daily Mail ran a post on British mothers who transform their breast milk into jewelry. At a place like Mom’s Own Milk, they can spend £12 ($19) for charms to £150 ($234) to have their breast milk solidified into charms and pendants.
The article pits the proud choice in boob juice accessories against the apparent haters (who are never directly quoted) who find it “distasteful.” "My necklace represents my achievement in breastfeeding and the closeness of my relationship with my son,” one mother is self-righteously quoted as saying.
Havrilesky’s piece doesn’t fall in the same camp of women who extol the benefits of dropping $200+ on having their breast milk coagulated into charms and jewelry. But they do fall along similar battle lines of the pro-children camp.
“If you already know you want kids and you’re worried that they’ll ruin your life and destroy your career, think again,” Havrilesky writes.
She seems to be under the impression that women in their 20s and 30s have concerns about motherhood that are in major need of myth-busting.
On the one hand, it’s a well-meaning effort to alleviate fears. On the other, this argument is based in an underlying, patronizing assumption that, of course, we want kids. We just need a little encouragement to overcome our misgivings.
But what if some women are quite content to embrace these misgivings?
“The chance that we’ll regret it doesn’t quite seem like a compelling enough reason to do it,” actress, writer, and director Jennifer Westfeldt told The New York Times of her decision not to have children with her now reportedly former boyfriend, Jon Hamm.
Many young women follow in Westfeldt’s footsteps. They question why motherhood is the default, why they must offer a robust argument for not having children, rather than the other way around.
While Havrilesky makes it clear she respects this choice, these women who choose not to have children are the ones most in need of the cheerleaders.
Yes, more women are speaking writing about their decisions not to have kids, but they face an ocean of pressure coming from families, friends, movies, television, and books.
Moreover, they often face obstacles from doctors who refuse to perform tubal ligations out of the fear women in their 20s will eventually come to regret their decision.
Such regret is, apparently, considered more worthy of intervention than the regret of an unwanted pregnancy.
A woman who does not want children is up against so much more than a woman who does.
While I appreciate all the articles telling me I can have kids and a job, and that doing both will ultimately be worthwhile and rewarding and the right choice, I’ve been told that my whole life.
Children are something I’ve thought about quite a lot and known that I’ve wanted for a long time. Luckily for me, society backs up this desire.
That’s why I don’t need the hand-holding. You know who does? The coworker, the childhood friend, the girl on the subway who know they do not want kids and are in search of role models.
Motherhood has everything on its side, including a fully stocked propaganda machine devoted to its sustenance—chosen (or not) childlessness, and its many nuances, not so much. And it’s childlessness that needs the banners and cheering.